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Diana Sperrazza: LISA (An Essay)

Diana Sperrazza has been a television producer for a CNN magazine in Washington, D.C. She is particularly interested in writing about class issues, as reflected in this essay. Wise Women's Web is happy to encourage her writing.

When I saw Lisa at the family picnic, she was wearing a purple tee shirt, with dirt smeared down the front of it, smoking a cigarette and loudly complaining about getting evicted from her apartment. Over six feet tall, weighing over 200 pounds, Lisa is hard to miss in any setting.

I never enjoy seeing Lisa, at the family picnic, or anywhere else, for that matter. Other members of my extended family seem to share this sentiment as well. Like me, they make a point of saying hello to her, and then stage a quick retreat away. The average contact with Lisa and her family, I would estimate, is under one minute. I notice that no one sits down to picnic at their table, with its sorry-looking bags of chips, cans of generic soda and cheapo supermarket cookies. I am no exception. I smile, say hello, move on. Like everyone else, it's probably the superficial things, that initially drive me away...the dirty clothes, the body odor, the smeary faces and sticky hands of the kids, the sullen cigarette-smoking husband.

I eat a hamburger and talk to my great aunt Theresa and my cousin Kathy for awhile. Then, when I've run out of the kind of small talk you make with people you see once a year, I find a spot away from all the picnic action, and just sit down at an empty picnic table. Now at a comfortable distance, I am drawn to watching Lisa. I listen and realize she is still talking about the same thing she was talking about, when I arrived an hour ago.

"They say they are gonna call the Board of Health on me because don't clean up right well let 'um it was a dump anyway way before I got there and I told welfare its just the cats and what do they think I'm supposed to do with all of them anyways and then I told them Roger would try and do something but if they think they can kick me out well they can just try and see and ..." Lisa says to my cousin Tommy, her squirming and uncomfortable listener.

I sit in awe for a moment, at the torrents of words flooding out of her, wondering how she can keep breathing, talking that fast and that loud. Shunned as she is, she's not letting herself be s. I am almost envious, in that peculiar way I get occasionally, of people, usually crazy or merely oblivious, who say anything they want, to anybody, because they feel like they have nothing e. It would be nice just not to give so much of a damn. I don't know if Lisa doesn't give a damn, is really oblivious or what. In fact, I haven't known what she feels for a long time. But I like to think that not shutting up is her own arrived at solution, that it is her way of emerging from the gulag of silence she was surrounded by, so many years ago.

Lisa is actually my aunt, my mother's half sister. Born some twenty years after my mother, Lisa was someone I, rather than my mother, grew up with. Thirty nine years old this year, she has been on welfare her entire adult life. She came to this picnic with her three children, Michelle, thirteen years old, Mary, probably around 10 years old, her youngest son David, not yet a year old, along with Roger, her husband, an unemployed auto body repairman, with scraggly crosses tattooed up and down his arms.

Each of the children has a different father-- Michelle's father was Alphonso, whose only gift to his daughter was his dark Puerto Rican looks. Mary's father was a homeless alcoholic, who disappeared while Lisa was pregnant. Roger is the father of her youngest child, and unlike the other men in her life, he seems to be sticking around.

In a flash of ironic insight, I realize that no matter how you slice it, Lisa has succeeded in getting herself a family, something I certainly have not done, childless at forty four. But in my own private universe, revolving as it does around the two big suns of freedom and achievement, Lisa's life is the gigantic black hole I always feared would suck me in.

Her failure to succeed, her backwards slide from a child who grew up working class like I did, to a mother on welfare, is the disaster I worked very hard to prevent at all costs. Simply put, I know now and I knew then that I could not survive a life in the small New England city I am from, with its workaday banality, its hidden brutality, its torturous isolation. I would have drowned in that peculiar misery of turning out to be nothing like the person I wanted to be and having to go through the motions of a life anyway. This is my nightmare, it is not Lisa's. But looking at her now, I can't really believe that Lisa would have chosen the life she has now. Her survival seems like a consolation prize at best.

I remember Lisa as a happy little girl, her brown hair in two shiny pigtails, always tall for her age. When I was ten years old, we used to play in a garden my grandmother had created out of a strip of land behind their three-family house on Maple Street. There was a big garden of gladiolas, with a border of painted white stones, a sliver of green lawn, a set of swings and some tinkling glass wind chimes from Woolworth's, with Chinese-looking characters on them, hanging from the roof of the back stoop. We used to spend all afternoon making elaborately decorated mud cakes. Lisa was very good at this and could do it for hours with an air of happy contentment. I cannot connect that person with the disheveled, cranky women before me. When I try to reconcile the two images, I see a broken umbilical cord-- as if the young-potential-Lisa-person I see in memory, still in the womb of childhood, died.

When Lisa was nine years old, she was brutally beaten and raped by an neighbor boy named Andy, who lived upstairs from her, in the three-family on Maple Street . Sixteen years old, he said was mad at her because she had hit him with a stick the previous summer. She laid in a coma for several weeks. During that time, which seemed to last forever, I remember obsessively phoning the hospital over and over again, to check to see f she was still on the what used to called the critical list. I was scared to death she would die. The gap that exists between us now hadn't opened up yet; I felt like it could have happened to me. I had even played with Andy while visiting at my grandmother's house.

Despite a bad head injury, Lisa tenaciously clung to life. She was in the hospital a long time and when she got out, the white of one of her eyes was mostly red, and she had a funny patch of skin on her forehead, where the surgeons had had to graft skin to cover her head wound. Nobody talked about what happened.

This is the terrible thing my family did to Lisa and my grandmother. They said nothing. The terrible thing happened and it was just so terrible that no one wanted to talk about it, and no one wanted them around, to be reminded. It is that special silence reserved for the truly damned, as if my family thought God must have marked and punished Lisa some how, or how else could something like this happen? And wouldn't it be best to stand aside, when something so utterly incomprehensible happens, because who knows the limits of the tentacles of such flippant evil?

I think about Lisa, sometimes, in my life as a journalist, whenever I read articles or watch TV news pieces on "transitioning women on welfare into jobs". In so many ways, Lisa fits the stereotype of a welfare mother: She dropped out of high school; she has three children with three different fathers, she lives from check to check in a dumpy apartment. I suppose you could make a case for her getting a job, instead of collecting a welfare check. The idea put forth, in policy making circles, is that anyone can be rehabilitated, and I'm certain you could find worse cases than Lisa's. But when I consider the vastness of the damage done to her, I despair. I look at her and have the sensation that, in some fundamental way, her life was stolen from her, either by the rape and beating, or by the silence surrounding it.

After what she always referred to as "the accident", my grandmother gave up playing piano. My mother said it was because she had been playing the piano that day that Lisa disappeared from the backyard. She could never really forgive herself --as if somehow her love of playing piano, the thing she loved doing more than anything else, had caused the terrible thing to the happen to the daughter she loved. When Lisa was a teenager, my grandmother became over-protective, almost never letting her go out. My grandmother started buying her anything she wanted to eat, as a reward for staying home. I remember a phase when Lisa would drink a quart of yellow buttermilk almost every day, along with a plate of cookies. She began to put on a lot of weight. When Lisa was sixteen, she dropped out of school. Then, when Lisa was nineteen, my grandmother made one of her legendary about faces and pushed Lisa out of the house, all but forcing her to marry Alphonso, learning disabled and barely able to speak English. I think she saw Lisa as damaged goods: "Let her at least have somebody" was the way my grandmother presented the marriage to the family.

I remember that, by then, I knew the whole story of what had happened to Lisa, which my mother had gradually revised as I got older. The original version presented to me when I was ten, was that Lisa had gotten hit by a car. When I was twelve, my mother disclosed the fact that Andy, the upstairs neighbor, had actually been trying to kill her. When I was either fifteen or sixteen, I finally learned about the rape and the true horror of what had happened, the horrible assault and the silence surrounding it, set in.

My mother disapproved of Lisa's marriage. I think it brought out the worst in my mother : her latent racism, because Alphonso was Puerto Rican, and the same terror I came to have, that through her sister, she too would slip, would go backwards into the darkness on the other side of the class divide. I began to lose contact with Lisa after that. While I was going to college, she started what turned out to be a short married life with Alphonso. I remember hearing she was

happy, at least for awhile, perhaps because she had finally left my grandmother's house. I didn't make many trips home in those years; I was too busy trying to separate myself from the place and the people I had grown up with. It was the 1970s and I was sure what used to be called the counterculture held some better way of life for me. It didn't, but this forsaking of my working class roots would be definitive; I would never really return to the family and the neighborhood I was from.

Twenty years down the road, at the annual family picnic, the yearly foray I make back into my past, I look around at the faces of my extended family. Some of us have done very well - we now sport lawyers, professors, even one bona fide millionaire. I am no stranger to success myself, and, more of the time that not, I frankly enjoy the big city life I have made for myself. According to the rules, I have played the game well, I have won.

But, big in the bright summer light of the family picnic, Lisa stands like some shadowy monument, reminding me of the things that happen in life that cannot be changed. I wonder, even with my best Herculean effort, if her cards had been dealt to me, how well would I have done? I think back to that little girl making mud pies I knew, as I look into the faces of Lisa's two young daughters who have come over to my picnic table to say hello.

Copyright © 1999 by Lisa Sperrazza. All rights reserved.

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